Sarah Pavan is a world champion and maybe the best volleyball player this country has ever produced – indoors, outdoors, court, or beach…bar none.
She’s not given to extensive conversation at the best of times. Like most great athletes, Sarah prefers to let her performance do the talking.
But when she calls from her home in California early one morning, Pavan is eager to chat.
“The beach is beautiful out there,” she says, as I visualize the sand and surf at Hermosa, the beach volleyball capital of North America.
“The shame is nobody’s on the beach. It’s a little scary to think about that scenario.”
Pavan’s career, which was peaking at long last, has for now been spiked.
She’s alone, isolated with her husband who’s a computer programmer, and spending her days training and exercising while taking online courses in neuroscience, pharmacy, and nutrition.
She’s got a degree in biochemistry and scored a perfect 4.0 grade point average as an academic, All-American at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln where she was NCAA champion as a court volleyball player and the collegiate, female, athlete of the year in the United States.
But the hurt comes because she can’t compete. All that’s left is what so many athletes will tell you is not enough: talking a good game.
“I can’t think of the worst case scenario because that will crush me,” she admits.
“I can’t let myself go there and I can’t feel sorry for myself. I know in these times our situation as athletes is not the most important thing. I have to see this as an opportunity to be ready to perform at my very best. The ones who come out of this will have to grind it out. The ones who are on their hands and knees and are doing the work will be the ones who will prevail in the end.”
It’s been a long time coming for Sarah Pavan.
WATCH | Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes’ journey to becoming world champions:
At 16 years of age she was the youngest player ever selected to Canada’s national women’s volleyball team.
She’s the daughter of Paul and Cindy Pavan of Kitchener, Ont., who both played volleyball at Western University in London.
Paul became Sarah’s coach and Cindy competed for the national team but missed out on the 1980 Olympics in Moscow because the team just failed to qualify for what turned out to be boycotted Games.
Because of her own history, Sarah’s mom can’t bear to discuss the predicament her daughter’s in now.
“I owe a lot to my mom because I wanted to be like her,” Sarah says. “We are both introverted people. But being an introvert can be isolating. Failing to qualify is tough. To miss the opportunity is heartbreaking when it’s your life. That would make it very hard for her to talk about.”
A superstar on the court, the six-foot-five Pavan was the best player on the Canadian national team from 2003 to 2012. She has played professionally in Italy, South Korea, Brazil, and China. But the one thing she was never able to do with the national team was qualify for the Olympics. Athens, Beijing, and London eluded her.
In 2013, she teamed up with Heather Bansley who was looking for a partner and Pavan gave beach volleyball a try.
“The Olympics is something I’ve been pursuing my entire life,” she reckons. “It has been the ultimate goal since I was old enough to comprehend what it really meant. If I didn’t try beach volleyball I knew I would regret it for the rest of my life.”
The shift in focus worked and along with Bansley, Pavan not only made it to the Olympics in Rio, the duo got to the quarter-finals before losing to the eventual gold medal champions from Germany. But as it is with all ambitious players coming close to winning is rarely good enough.
“I turned 30 at the last Olympics,” she recalls. “It was incredibly disappointing to miss a medal. For the longest time just getting there was the goal. It was elusive for so long. But then you get there and it’s crazy how quickly your goals evolve.”
After the Games, Pavan and Bansley parted ways and Sarah teamed up with a new partner, Melissa Humana-Parades, a younger player from Toronto. Their success together has been astounding.
They won the first-ever gold medal in beach volleyball as the sport made its debut at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in 2018 and have been five-time champions on the FIVB beach volleyball world tour.
Just last summer, Pavan and Humana-Parades captured the FIVB world championship title by defeating Alix Klineman and April Ross of the United States in Hamburg, Germany. It was the first time that Canadian players had won a medal of any kind at the tournament and they immediately became the number one ranked team on the planet. They also established themselves as medal favourites heading to the Tokyo Olympics.
Then all of sport stopped.
“It’s difficult because Melissa and I were in such an incredible rhythm,” Pavan laments. “I know we would have done amazing things. Believe me I’ve cried a lot lately and it would be easy to see this as a break and to watch a lot of Netflix.”
But that’s not the way Sarah sees the way forward. As it has been with her entire sporting journey, this will continue to be a struggle.
“You have to put the work in if you want the riches of a king and all the glory that comes with it,” she says with conviction.
“It’s the unglamorous things that no-one sees…the crying and the sweat. I feel if Melissa and I put the work in I can be super confident that we’ll come out of this stronger than most.”
She talks about calling her folks the other day and being concerned about their health during the pandemic. But her parents allayed her fears and her dad in particular, advised her to focus on what lies ahead in Tokyo.
“I get any sass and fire that I have from my dad,” Sarah laughs. “He knows how passionate I am about this. He has more confidence in Melissa and me than anyone else. His only concern is that I get a chance to compete.”
Which is all any athlete like Sarah can ask for in times like these. All she wants is to take a break from all the thinking and get the chance to perform on the world’s greatest stage. In doing so she hopes to play her part in getting beyond the current crisis which has all of humanity in its grasp.
“If we can fight through this I think the athletes and the Olympics can spearhead a coming together for the larger community,” she concludes.
“Conflicts and troubles are forgotten and everyone lays everything down for just a moment. I feel like the Olympics could be the perfect celebration of our global accomplishment in defeating this current situation.”
And when that happens the talking will be done for Sarah Pavan and thousands of athletes like her.
Then and only then will she have her day at the beach.